Khodorkovsky calls Russia 'mafia' state at 'Citizen K' Venice screening

Venice (AFP) –

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Oligarch-turned-dissident exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky said Russia had been taken over by a "mafia" as he appeared in Venice for the launch of Alex Gibney's "Citizen K" documentary, described by one critic as a "scalding portrait" of the country under Vladimir Putin.

Gibney, known for his meticulous non-fiction films including "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and "Taxi to the Dark Side", turns a journalistic eye on the complex and contradictory figure of Khodorkovsky for his latest film to examine "how power works in Russia".

The film is a portrait of the shadow dance of wealth and influence in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, tracing Putin's two-decade grip on power.

It follows the story of Khodorkovsky, once one of the country's richest men, who was jailed in 2003 and spent a decade in a Siberian prison for tax evasion after clashing with Putin.

The former oil tycoon now lives in exile in Britain and has become one of Putin's most prominent critics.

"Today Russia is not just an authoritarian state, it is a state that has been taken over by the mafia," Khodorkovsky told a news conference on Saturday ahead of the screening of "Citizen K" in Venice, the film festival's biggest documentary so far.

It has had an enthusiastic reception, with David Rooney of Hollywood Reporter calling it a "lucidly accessible account of post-Soviet Russia's lurching transition out of communism into a free-market economy that became a Wild West of gangster capitalism" and a "scalding portrait of Putin's Russia".

The US director described his film as a "cautionary tale" for other democracies, adding that "Americans are somehow haunted by Russia" in the wake of the 2016 elections.

He interviewed Khodorkovsky for more than 20 hours for the film, saying it was necessary to "penetrate what is sometimes a necessary reserve".

Variety's Guy Lodge described the film as "bristling tension between heroism and villainy" in its portrayal of Khodorkovsky, who has a "political about-face that feels almost too good, too neat, to be true".

"In Alex Gibney's chewy, engrossing documentary, it's a reversal that unlocks many of the conflicts and contradictions ailing post-Soviet Russia's capitalist democracy," he said.

Khodorkovsky was one of a handful of individuals who were able to accumulate staggeringly vast wealth through the free market reforms of the 90s at the helm of up the former oil giant Yukos.

In the same period Putin was nimbly climbing the ladder of the country's intelligence service, before being named prime minister by an ailing Boris Yeltsin in 1999 and then becoming president in 2000.

The Russian leader quickly set about consolidating power -- reinforcing control over parliament, demanding loyalty from the media and taking on the super-rich oligarchs.

As he enters his third decade in power, Putin's approval ratings have dropped significantly and recent weeks have seen thousands take to the streets in Moscow calling for free and fair elections.

Khodorkovsky, who funds the Open Russia movement, said that the number of political prisoners in the country was increasing.

"In Russia democracy is something we have to fight for and something for which we have to pay a lot," he said.